'The Lacuna' is an ambitious bridge of cultures, ideologies, decades
Barbara Kingsolver's first novel in nearly a decade was well worth the wait.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of "The Lacuna" will read from her book at 1 p.m. next Friday, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park, free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com). For information on getting signed copies of "The Lacuna," contact the bookstore.
Kingsolver will also appear at 7:30 p.m. next Friday, Bainbridge High School commons. Sponsored by the Eagle Harbor Book Co.; free (206-842-5332 or www.eagleharborbooks.com), West Sound Reads and other bookstores in the West Sound Independent Bookstores association.
It's been nearly a decade since Barbara Kingsolver has produced a new novel. "The Lacuna" (Harper, 464 pp., $26.99) proves to have been worth the wait.
The term lacuna refers to a gap, or a missing piece of information. But in using this as a literary conceit, Kingsolver leaves no holes in a carefully woven plot.
This ambitious new work bridges two continents, two cultures, two political ideologies and two tumultuous decades. It sweeps readers from Depression-era riots in Washington, D.C., to the floating gardens of Xochimilco, to a 1950 public hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The diffident protagonist is Harrison Williams Shepherd, whose powers of observation stem from a peripatetic adolescence that shuffles him between parents and living situations.
The year is 1929, and Shepherd is 13 when his Mexican mother rejects his American father and returns with her son to Mexico to live with a new beau. This is just the first in a succession of men for Shepherd's mother, who is always impatient with the status quo.
Frequently left to his own devices, Shepherd becomes a watchful youth, and he resorts to confiding his observations, fears and desires in a notebook. He is 15 when his mother ships him back to his father, who promptly enrolls him in a military academy, and Shepherd's compulsion for journal keeping captures seminal experiences.
Three years later, he is back in Mexico and employed as a cook in the tempestuous household of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. His journal entries become even more interesting when the household expands to make room for a permanent houseguest, Lev (Leon) Trotsky, who has been exiled from the Soviet Union and is regarded by Stalin as a mortal enemy.
The Rivera-Kahlo compound isn't quite the sanctuary everyone had hoped it would be — there are secret liaisons and shifting alliances within the household, as well as political dangers just outside. Shepherd notes it all with a discerning eye and an increasing sense of self-awareness and political understanding, but when he witnesses one unspeakable act of treachery, he is propelled back to the United States under a cloud of suspicion.
His journal entries, combined with newspaper clippings and letters sent to Kahlo and others, become the backbone of "The Lacuna." Readers who have been browbeaten by 21st-century demands for bullet-point brevity and Twitter succinctness will luxuriate in the courtliness and languid wit of the epistolary portions of this book.
The novel's first half is a sweeping mural of sensory delights and stimulating ideas about art, governance, identity and history. A parade of characters blazes through these pages, and Shepherd is their student. Difficult lessons come in the form of an archaeological site's hieroglyphs, or the whiff of tear gas, or the howls of a monkey troop.
The didacticism abates significantly in the book's second half as Shepherd, shed of his parents and mentors, embarks on his adult life as an author living in South Carolina. Every so often, however, his stenographer does give him a piece of her mind. Violet Brown is an essential and often a leavening character in this book, although sometimes her political correctness seems to be a stretch.
"The Lacuna" probes mid-20th-century America's uses and abuses of language, media and power. It may be historical fiction, but readers will feel the sting of connection between then and now.
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